Coal keeps WV poor

This weekend, West Virginia University played Marshall in the first annual "Friends of Coal" Bowl in Morgantown. WVU predictibly whooped Marshall, but for me, the game was marred by the near-constant pro-coal industry sales pitch by the announcers, commercials, and "special guests" in the booth. Former Marshall coach Bob Pruett and former WVU coach Don Nehlen, both on the pro-industry lobby group's payroll as spokespeople, told about all the glories of the coal industry and the massive force of good it is for our humble state.

Let me say that my family have been heavily involved in coal mining going back several generations. Coal miners are not the problem. In fact, my grandfathers on both sides and my great-grandfather on my dad's side were all miners. My dad was a federal mine inspector for 35+ years. My dad and mom do not share my views on mining, and point out, rightly, that money from mining and, in my case, inspecting mines, put me through college and gave us a nice place to live. This is true.

Several thousand people in WV make a damn good living by being coal miners, with salaries averaging around $65,000, well above the norm in the state. The "Friends of Coal" group makes much hay about how many jobs in WV mining produces. They act as if the whole state would collapse should mining go away, or god forbid, be regulated and properly taxed. But just how many miners are actually working in WV?

16,455 miners. That's it. That means that coal mining employs 0.9% of the state's population. (My numbers come from the 2002 Census, if you're wondering.)

Do you know what Don Blankenship, CEO of WV's biggest coal company, Massey Energy, made in 2003? $6,105,714 (according to salary.com). That's per year.

McDowell county, which has produced more coal than any other county in the state, has a per capita income of $17,622 (as of 2005). That means it would take the average citizen of McDowell county 347 years to make what Dandy Don makes in a single year. In fact, Don makes in a single day about what our average Joe in Welch takes a whole year to earn. If he has a job, that is. The unemployment rate in McDowell county is 8.6%. Ouch. Seen in that light, coal doesn't look so good for McDowell county, after all.

Coal (and more recently, timber) have made up the lion's share of West Virginia's industrial base since the state broke away from VA during the Civil War. Through all those years, coal has been the engine that drove West Virginia's economy. It's given thousands upon thousands of workers jobs throughout those years (and it gave a lot of them black lung, too, but we'll ignore that for now). I won't dispute that. So what has been the end result of all those great years of mining? Surely, such a fantastic industry would have turned West Virginia into one of the richest, most progressive places in the nation, right? Wrong.

After 150 years of coal mining, WV is

50th in Median Income: $24,880
Number 8 in amount of persons below poverty level: 16.7%
3rd in unemployment: 7.5%
50th in persons 25 or older with a bachelor's degree: 15.3%
40th in teacher's salaries: $38,461
5th in infant mortality: 9.1/1000 births

No matter how you slice it, that sucks. My point is that for all the snowjobs put forth by ex-football coaches and bass pros, the hard facts are that WV has never done all that well under the coal regime, even in the best of times--the '50s--when coal companies still actually employed people to mine coal instead of giant mechanical draglines.

And speaking of giant, mechanical draglines, those monstrosities gouge out huge chunks of the Appalachian skyline day after day, enriching guys like Blankenship and other out-of-state corporations (Massey, for example, is located in Richmond, VA--well away from the horrors it inflicts on our mountainsides.)

On Saturday, FOC spokesman Nehlen said to the announcer "Some people don't like us because we sometimes make a little bit of a mess." Count me as some people Don. WV is a great place. I just hope that the people living there wake up to the fact that "coal = jobs" is a myth before it's too late and they are living on a landscape that looks more like the moon than the lush paradise they grew up with.